Bonnie Henry: The, er, sole of good service: knowledgeable clerks

2013-05-05T00:00:00Z Bonnie Henry: The, er, sole of good service: knowledgeable clerksBonnie Henry Special to The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Hey, I put my new shoes on - thanks to what may be a dying breed.

Remember how it used to be when you were out shopping for shoes? You walked into the shoe store and there was a clerk, usually a man, there to wait on you.

You'd show him some styles on display that appealed to you and he'd disappear for a time into a back room, eventually bringing back several styles and colors, all in your size.

You'd place your tootsies on the little footrest in front of you, as the clerk carefully pulled the tissue and cardboard out of each shoe, untied the laces, if that were the case, then slipped the shoe onto your foot with a gentle slide of shoe horn against heel.

"How do those feel?" he'd ask, as you paraded up and down the aisle, pausing in front of the mirror. Sometimes you'd reward him with, "I'll take these." Sometimes not. Either way, the same service was there - and expected.

No more. Today, we walk into huge shoe stores where every shoe is displayed atop aisle after aisle. If one of the shoes you see appeals to you, all you have to do is find the desired style, size and color among the myriad boxes stacked below. If by some miracle you do find the desired shoe, you then get to unwrap and try it on while balancing on the other foot.

Now granted, most department stores have clerks in the shoe department who will help you. Make that singular clerk. As a result, it's up to you to find the shoe on display that you want, then find and present it to a harried clerk who will disappear for 10 minutes, then reappear to announce, "Sorry, the largest size we have is a 6."

I tell ya, folks, I thought I was going to go shoeless this summer, until I finally staggered into a locally owned shoe store. There to greet me was a man who looked like he may have sold his first pair of shoes during the Truman administration. Not only did he instantly find the pair of shoes that appealed to me, he also brought out several other styles.

Sure, that's good salesmanship - one he delivered with a smile, along with some knowledgeable accolades about each pair of shoes I tried on. Alas, service like this comes with a price, which is why I left with only one pair. But next time I'll shop here first, not last.

It's somewhat of a paradox, isn't it, how we blithely shop for everything from toilet paper to bridal gowns with a mere click of a mouse or tap on a screen, yet bemoan the lack of personal service down at the mall.

A few stores still get it right, which is why Nordstrom and Ace Hardware are still around. Then there's J.C. Penney, which recently fired its CEO after a disastrous experiment that alienated many of its loyal customers.

According to a recent Time magazine article, it wasn't just the no-sales gimmicks, or the trying-too-hard-to-be-chic merchandise that sent customers fleeing, but a dearth of clerks - reportedly 40,000 laid off in 2012. Hey, if you can't find a clerk to help you, might as well shop at Walmart.

On the other hand, a clueless clerk can be just about as helpful as those alabaster dummies they decided to set up in the aisles of the Tucson Mall Penney's. Exhibit A: the young man I found in the men's department who had no idea where men's flannel shirts could be - because he had no idea what flannel was.

To be fair, I've also encountered wonderful clerks at Penney's in the past, such as the woman who helped me order two lamps I couldn't find in the store. We did it online through the store computer, at a cheaper price than I could have gotten on my own.

Sure hope she wasn't one of the 40,000 let go. If so, I know a nice shoe store where her services just might be appreciated.

Bonnie Henry's column runs every other Sunday. Contact her at

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